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In Sri Lanka, the government increasingly looks like a family business



The first attempt by a Rajapaksa to return to power in Sri Lanka was brief.

In 2018, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as prime minister, even though the man he was supposed to replace said he still had the job. Sir. Rajapaksa eventually joined, though not before chairs were smashed and chili powder and fists were thrown into parliament.

But a year later, his brother Gotabaya was elected president. Since then, the Rajapaksas have stamped their name so thoroughly on the Sri Lankan government that it feels like a family business – albeit a struggling one, with the economy in shambles and dissatisfaction rising.

On Thursday, another brother, Basil, was sworn in as finance minister, a move that an analyst, Bhavani Fonseka, said “consolidated the family’s rule of Rajapaksa.”

“We now have four brothers and several other family members who hold key government positions,” said Ms. Fonseka, a senior researcher at the Center for Policy Alternatives, a research institute based in Colombo, the capital. “In the face of weak opposition and no real control and balance between the executive, the prospects for Sri Lanka’s constitutional democracy are deeply worrying.”

Gotabaya Rajpaksa, 72, gave himself the extra post of defense minister shortly after becoming president. He soon got Mahinda, 75, prime minister, who also put him in charge of the ministries of religious affairs and urban development. (He was also finance minister before Basil got the job.) The eldest brother, Chamal Rajapaksa, 78, was appointed irrigation minister as well as prime minister of home affairs and national security and disaster management.

Then came the second generation. Namal Rajapaksa, 35, Mahinda’s son and a former captain of the national rugby team, was appointed Minister of Youth and Sports. He is also the Prime Minister of Digital Technology and Business Development. Chamal’s son Shasheendra Rajapaksa was given a portfolio too long to fit on a business card: he is prime minister for “paddy and cereals, organic food, vegetables, fruit, chili, onions and potatoes, seed production and high-tech agriculture.”

The family has been in power for much of the last two decades. During her 10 years as president, Mahinda Rajapaksa ended Sri Lanka’s decades of civil war in 2009 and crushed the rebels known as the Tamil Tigers. His brothers also held important positions at the time: Gotabaya headed the Ministry of Defense, where he was accused of violating human rights in the last stretch of the war, while Chamal was parliamentary speaker and Basil was minister in the cabinet.

But in the 2015 election, Mahinda Rajapaksa was denied a third term as president, after pushing through a constitutional amendment to allow herself to be persecuted.

The coalition government that replaced him brought hope for a reform and a promise to put the war-torn country on a path to reconciliation where war crimes would be investigated and the complaints of minorities as the rebels had made their rallying cry would be addressed.

But the new government was so stuck in war and dysfunction that many voters apparently longed for the order Rajapaksas had imposed. The bombings in the Easter of 2019 – where despite repeated warnings from India’s intelligence service, militants launched simultaneous attacks that killed more than 250 people – helped Gotabya Rajapaksa win the presidential election several months later and fought like a strong man.

Since then, the coronavirus pandemic and the government’s response to it, which has included strict restrictions on movement and essentially closed the border to tourists, have added to the economic woes in Sri Lanka, which were already caught in a debt cycle.

Basil Rajapaksa, the new finance minister, played important roles in both brothers’ presidential campaigns and is seen as a pragmatic strategist within the family. Some analysts and opposition politicians saw his appointment as a recognition by his brothers that rapid action was needed to tackle the economy and discontent.

But others wondered why a non-Rajapaksa could not be found to do the job.

“I do not think we have faced such a serious crisis in our balance of payments over the last many decades. This means professional, technical input to resolve this situation and get this country out of it, ”said Harsha De Silva, an opposition lawmaker and economist. “Rajapaksas believe that expertise lies only among their family – that if one brother cannot do it, the next brother will try, and if that fails, a third brother will do it.”

“You need discussions, you need ideas that are thrown around in a crisis,” Mr De Silva added. “This family – they all think alike, and we have seen that because they have been in office since 2005, except for a few years.”

In recent months, Sri Lanka has seen repeated demonstrations by thousands of people with various demands, including justice for those who disappeared during the war and better compensation for health workers. The government has put down the protests on the grounds that they violated Covid restrictions; some called it a pretext, noting that the guidelines allowed spas, restaurants and shops to open.

Human rights activists have expressed concern over Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s centralization of power and his distribution of key positions to family members. They also say he has reversed the progress Sri Lanka had made with some degree of responsibility for crimes committed during the war.

Rights groups say Rajapaksa has used police and the judiciary to harass dissidents and has prevented the investigation of war crimes, which he characterized as “political violence” by security officers. He has also pardoned military officers who were accused of serious assaults.

Last year, Mr Rajapaksa pushed through constitutional amendments that strengthen the powers of his office. The Sri Lankan Bar Association has warned that the changes will allow the president to act legally with impunity and has removed much-needed controls and balances from the country’s government system.

The changes also eliminated a clause prohibiting dual citizens from holding key government positions. It enabled Basil Rajapaksa, a US citizen, to become finance minister.

A final obstacle was that Basil Rajapaksa was not a member of the parliament where the cabinet ministers come from. This obstacle was overcome when a legislator from the ruling party withdrew and Basil was presented as his replacement through a party list.

“They do not see this as an excuse – and neither do their constituencies as long as they provide tangible and symbolic benefits to them,” said Alan Keenan, senior consultant for Sri Lanka in the International Crisis Group. “But that’s the problem – they do not deliver. By increasingly closing opportunities for political criticism and protest, they risk serious conflict. ”




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